Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

Sometimes when I talk to people about the importance of reading nonverbal cues–in sexual situations and also in general–they tell me that they avoid doing so because they don’t want to “assume.” Paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues feels to them like making assumptions about people’s internal states based on very limited information.

Not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions about people’s thoughts and feelings is an admirable goal, but I think there’s a misconception at work here about what reading body language means in a practical sense, and I think that pop psychology is partially to blame. We’ve all seen those Cosmo and Psychology Today articles that are like “Ten Ways To Tell If He’s Into You Based On His Eyebrows” or “Your Kids May Be Lying To You: Just Check The Position Of Their Feet To Know For Sure.”

As exciting as it may be to literally read people’s thoughts and intentions based on the position of their feet or eyebrows, I’ve yet to see any actual research evidence for any of this.

Even psychology textbooks spread this false “mind reading” meme. I’ve seen sentences like “We are all expert mind readers! For example, this study shows that people can generally tell if a person in a photo is angry or happy.”

No wonder some people think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to do the impossible and read minds. And no wonder some people also think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to leap to wildly specific conclusions like “This person’s tone of voice suggests that they are sad and not really paying attention to our conversation because they’re thinking of their mother who’s in the hospital.”

Here’s how this works in a more practical sense. Yesterday morning I took an Uber to the airport. It was 5 AM. I had had about four hours of bad sleep. The following conversation ensued:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia.

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Whoops. It’s C then.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: Ohio.

Driver: Where in Ohio? Cleveland? Columbus?

Me: [city].

At this point the conversation ended, and we didn’t speak again until we arrived at my airport and he wished me a safe trip and I wished him a nice day. I presume it ended because I was answering as briefly as possible and my tone was completely flat. I was literally only giving the driver the information he was asking for (whether because of social norms or because of a need to get me to my destination) and volunteering nothing more. I wasn’t reciprocating my driver’s cheerfulness and bubbliness at all.

Maybe I hate small talk. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m feeling really anxious about flying. Maybe I’m on my way home to see a seriously ill family member (thankfully, I was not). Maybe I just personally hate this driver with all my heart and do not want to say a single word more to him than is absolutely necessary. Maybe I hate all people. Maybe I have depression.

The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter! The driver correctly picked up on the fact that, for whichever of many possible reasons, I wasn’t feeling like talking, so he stopped trying to talk to me after that brief exchange. No mind reading was necessary. All he had to do was pay a minimal amount of attention.

The conversation could’ve gone very differently. Sometimes when I am in fact less tired and physically miserable, I do engage Uber drivers in conversation because I like talking to people. It could’ve just as easily been like this:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia!

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3, I believe.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Oh, oops! That’s the one I usually fly out of. I meant C.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: [city], Ohio. I get to see my family this weekend!

Driver: That’s wonderful! Do you get to see them often?

Me: No, not too often, so it’s always special when I do. Does your family live nearby?

And so on. I’ve had a lot of conversations like this.

And for all the driver in that parallel universe knows, maybe I’m just in a cheery mood. Maybe I love small talk with strangers. Maybe I’ve been feeling really lonely and just want to connect with someone, anyone. Maybe I just drank two coffees and have energy that I just need to use somehow. Maybe something about this particular person appeals to me and makes me feel like chatting. Who knows? Clearly I’m interested in having a conversation, so he would feel comfortable continuing it.

Incidentally, many people would consider the way the conversation actually went to be a “failure”: either because I “failed” to respond to this person’s attempt to engage me in conversation, or because the driver “failed” to keep trying to get me “out of my shell” or whatever. I’m not exaggerating; some people really do think this way. Some people would ask me why I didn’t just have a friendly chat with the nice man. Other people would ask him why he’d just stop trying and let his passenger sit there in silence.

But I think that our interaction was a complete success. I was able to enjoy (insofar as I was able, at 5 AM) a nice, quiet drive. While I obviously can’t presume how the driver felt, his body language and tone when we said goodbye at the end of the drive suggested that it went just fine for him too. Nobody had to bend over backwards out of a sense of obligation or politeness.

Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

And I’m specifically talking about the ones that didn’t. I’m talking about the ones who on some level expected me to directly state, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” before they would stop trying to have a conversation with me. On some level, they thought that reading nonverbal cues is unnecessary because direct, effective communication means that I should have to verbalize “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” every time someone tries to engage me in a conversation that I don’t want to have.

Maybe this seems like a reasonable assumption, but in that case, as an experiment, keep track for a day or several how often someone makes small talk with you (or something else in that vein) when you’d rather they didn’t and wish they would stop. Imagine if they never, ever stopped unless you either left their physical vicinity or said, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now.”

It would be exhausting. It would be completely exhausting if every time I’m too tired, stressed, worried, sad, physically uncomfortable, focused on something else, or otherwise mentally occupied to have a conversation, I had to explicitly state this or else the person would continue trying to have a conversation with me.

And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

At that point, a number of things can happen. You can just stop, like the driver from this morning did. You can say, “Sorry, it looks like this isn’t a good time. Catch me later if you want to talk?/Should I leave you alone?” Often the response will be something like, “Yeah, I’m just really tired right now. I’ll talk to you later.” Or it might be, “Sorry, I’m just a little out of it. Keep talking, I’m listening.”

No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do. But we don’t, for all sorts of reasons such as neurodiversity or cultural differences. For instance, if I grow up in Russia and learn how to read nonverbal cues as a Russian person, I may not be as effective at it if I suddenly move to the United States.

And it’s also important to note that we may misinterpret nonverbal cues from certain categories of people because of preconceived notions we have about those people. The nonverbal cues of disabled people may be inaccurately perceived as angry. The nonverbal cues of (white) women may be inaccurately perceived as insecure or uncertain. The nonverbal cues of Black men may be inaccurately perceived as threatening.

In general, if you know that you have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues in useful ways, you can supplement that with direct, verbal communication. That can look like, “I’m not sure if you feel like talking right now or not. It’s okay if you don’t, but can you let me know?” Or it can look like, “Hey, I have a lot of trouble reading nonverbal cues. If we’re ever talking and you don’t feel like talking anymore, can you please say so directly so that I don’t accidentally keep bugging you?”

I want to be careful and not hold nonverbal cues up as some perfect, ideal way of getting information about people’s needs and feelings. There’s a reason why people are cautious about nonverbal cues and wary of making assumptions based on them.

However, refusing to observe and respond to nonverbal cues also puts a lot of pressure on anyone who wants to exit a social situation or be given more physical space or be left alone or whatever. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t make eye contact, closes their body off from you, answers tersely, and generally shows no interest in continuing a conversation probably has no interest in continuing a conversation. But if you’re unsure, you can always ask.

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Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions
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13 thoughts on “Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

  1. 1

    And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

    This seems to me like a thing that’s not exactly simple to intellectualize. Even if I were to notice that, it would be at a more instinctual level. At most, what I would think is “she doesn’t seem to want to talk right now” rather than any cues I’m actually picking up on. At a more intellectual level, I doubt people would be able to notice any such specific cues unless it was totally after-the-fact, subject to the person’s memory of the conversation. Intellect is much slower than instinct.

    And that matters if you want people to develop their awareness of such social cues. It sounds impossible to develop without direct practice in social situations.

    No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do.

    How you would even know if you’re good or bad at reading social cues? Wouldn’t you only notice the particularly egregious times you fail? And I would assume that happens with everybody every now and then no matter how talented they are. Even someone who says that they’re bad at reading social cues are probably better than they think.

    Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

    Well, their perception could be the opposite. They might read your cues as a general demeanor and therefore your fatigue and flat tone are not indicative of your current mood or aversion to conversation. Some people just speak with a flat tone.

  2. 2

    I have frequent experience with people who insist on starting a conversation with me on an airplane or other place when I am clearly reading a book. When I am reading a book, it is usually not a sign that I want to talk; it is the opposite. It is a sign that I want to read. I’ve discovered that reading is often perceived as rude, even if you are in a situation like an airplane ride where you are traveling alone, do not know your seat mate, and don’t wish to sit and stare out the window for all those hours.

    Reading in public is seen as rude, but constantly interrupting someone who is reading to engage in idle chit chat is not considered rude.

  3. 3

    I’m really bad at conversations, they always play out like the first one whether I want to talk or not. When someone asks a question I know no way to respond except with the answer. Then to keep the conversation going I struggle to think of another question I can ask back, in the hope that it will work better this time. Few candidates make it through my internal filters.

  4. 4

    FWIW, both my parents were profoundly deaf, so my first language was American Sign-Language. While I’m not an activist for the deaf, as so many hearing children of deaf parents are, I am nevertheless fascinated by the commonalities and differences between sign-language and spoken English. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s difficult to eavesdrop on a signed conversation. Without being relatively close, one misses all the other body language clues. Certainly emotional context is almost exclusively conveyed through facial expression, tension in the shoulders, and other, mostly very subtle, bodily and facial clues.

    Although I rarely challenge anyone on the conflict between what their mouth is saying and what their body is saying, I don’t hesitate at all to use my perception of such to inform my interactions. No, it’s not mind reading. It’s simply being sensitive to the whole of the conversation.

  5. 5

    I remember as a highschooler being particularly bad at reading people. Part of it was certainly due to my introvertedness and the fact that I moved around too much to really get used to communicating with people, but in hindsight I think a lot of it was a stubborn refusal to read people. As an outsider who was already socially awkward, it tended to be the case that people generally looked down on me and didn’t want to talk to me. I think I often forced myself, subconciously, to ignore this and plow on ahead anyway. Unfortunately, this probably made it even worse as I would then come across as a creep. It was tough, though, because when it did register that my friends really didn’t enjoy my company, it would send me into a state of depression, often with accompanying suicidal ideation. I was perhaps an extreme case, but I suspect that a lot of people choose to ignore body language due to a similar need to feel acceptance and avoid rejection, and do it through sheer denial that they are being rejected.

  6. 6

    My favourite example when people claim they cannot read body language is always animals: If you’re able to tell if the cat wants to be petted without being scratched you’re able to find out if somebody wants to talk to you.
    To me it seems that since most people won’t scractch you, many folks just don’t bother to take care.

    1. 6.1

      If you’re able to tell if the cat wants to be petted without being scratched you’re able to find out if somebody wants to talk to you.

      I don’t really understand why. Animal cues are less subtle than human cues, especially if we’re talking about conversational cues. And the animal cue you’re referring to is way more dramatic than “I don’t feel like talking right now.”

  7. 7

    I don’t really buy the objection that reading body language is making some arrogant and unwarranted assumption. Trying to conclude whether or not a person wants to be left alone is trying to answer a fairly simple question. The default safety would be *assume person wants to be left along unless they show other signs.*

    There are settings and locations where that assumption might be false, where someone would be better off taking initiative to make people feel welcome, but those are usually times when someone decides to attend a particular event, not incidentally encountering people in a public space.

  8. 8

    It’s not just about grandiose promises of what amount to mind-reading. In a phrase: it’s the certainty, stupid!

    WAY too many self-proclaimed body language experts have this tone of absolute confidence and certitude. And they also imply that you can accurately gauge someone’s emotions without asking them, period… implying that if you can’t, you’re an EQ-deficient loser.

    Even though we have since seen that human beings are no better than flipping a coin when it comes to detecting lies on body language alone, those studies came years after the “every normal human being knows how to accurately read people with a single glance” meme had percolated through our culture without anything critical being said about it.
    Maybe because of that confident tone of voice: it made me feel like I had no right to criticize it. Like I had no case, in the face of such an authoritative demeanor.
    I felt like I was being told, “you MUST make assumptions, it’s good emotional intelligence to make quick decisions.” I blame the influence of Dubya.

    My attitude to reading body language is now, pick it up and quietly incorporate it into what you’re learning about the situation and the person. It takes as complete a picture as possible to make an accurate assessment. Empathy is NOT about a prohibition on asking, despite what we’ve been led to believe. And for FSM’s sake, can the certainty. We treat people like sh!t when we operate from certainty.

  9. 9

    Just. I JUST have to notice.

    To me this sentence is like like saying “You just have to shoot 10 successful free throws.” Yes, I can do that eventually. But it’s going to take me a whole lot longer than someone who’s actually good at basketball. I’m going to miss a lot but eventually I’ll get 10 shots in.

    See, “noticing” social cues seems to be unconscious for a lot of people. My spouse is really good at this. They just notice this stuff, like I just notice that the cupboard in the kitchen is open and there are three empty soda cans on their dresser and a hole in my sock and the weird buzzing noise the light fixture in the office at work makes. In order to “notice” something like the tone of your conversation with the taxi driver I have to do it consciously.

    It’s not even that I have to remind myself to pay attention to people’s behaviors. It’s that I have to use a mental checklist for this stuff. “Is this person looking at me, yes or no? Is this person giving me curt answers, yes or no? Are they rolling their eyes at me, yes or no? Have I been talking a lot more than them, yes or no?” I have to THINK about this. All the time. Every time.

    It’s fucking exhausting.

    That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. I work hard to try not to hurt, offend, or irritate people. I fail a lot, but I try because I do actually understand that it’s important. But the most exhausting part is that when I make mistakes my spouse or friends say “You just have to notice that Sarah didn’t like it when you talked about that thing” and “Just pay attention!” as if I’m not trying. All the time.

  10. Ed
    10

    This is a hard issue for me. Obviously non-verbal behavior expresses SOMETHING–but what?

    I fold my arms because it feels comfortable, not because I’m angry or defensive. Cultures differ greatly in their norms about eye contact. A person might have an unpleasant look on their face because they have a headache.

    A psychological study of people’s interpretation of and projection onto other people’s body language might be more interesting than the supposed science of what someone’s eyebrows or fingers are “really” saying.

  11. 11

    OMG thank you so much for this nuanced and empathetic explanation of this! I really wish more people would work on reading non-verbal signals more often.

    You hit the nail on the head about how if I’m already tired or stressed, having to explicitly tell the person please leave me alone is just going to make it worse.

    I once had a roommate who would literally follow me around the house talking at me, despite the fact that I was: not making eye contact, giving minimal if any responses, and actively doing other things like chores. Sure, I could have told them every time hey I’m not up for talking, but that would have made my existing anxiety worse because then I have to do more emotional labour to manage their feelings about being rejected or being “annoying” to me.

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